8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Reconsider

The work I did for newspapers was by far the most collaborative writing I’ve ever done, though generally I didn’t think I was collaborating at the time.

Every day, I reported my story, I thought about it, and I wrote it down—or I wrote it down and thought about it. I polished it up nice and shiny and minded my factual as well as stylistic p’s and q‘s, then turned it over to my editing and copyediting colleagues to put their fingers into it.

When the rooting around worked, it worked because those colleagues made you reconsider everything in the story that mattered. I reconsidered it when I sat down beside the desk editor and she questioned this lead paragraph and that quote and this comma and the use of that term. When, perhaps, she questioned whether my story was news at all rather than just the same old, same old. Or conversely when she questioned whether the run-of-the-mill story I had composed might instead be a significant crack in the wall of some institutional edifice.

I reconsidered it when, after I had left work and stopped to have a few beers and arrived at home to have a few more and watch something insipid but entertaining on television, or god forbid that I had gone out with my wife to a movie or dinner with friends, and someone on the copy desk interrupted my insipid entertainment, or I came home from the movie or dinner and found a blinking light on my answering machine (picture a time before cell phones when people were not constantly available).

At each reconsideration, you had to defend the decisions you made. And with each defense, if you had anything mentally going on, you had to ask yourself what the editor was asking you: Had your choices been the right ones? Had you left something out that you shouldn’t have? Had you gotten the essence of the story or had you missed it completely? And sometimes you discovered that the answers to at least some of those questions did not comfort you, but that this discomfort made the story better and made you a better writer. And then you realized that whatever the quality of your decisions, the act of reconsideration itself made you a better writer because it taught you the kinds of questions to ask yourself whether there was a copyeditor at the other end of the phone line or not.

You learned that what a priest I once interviewed said about his faith applied equally well to writing: that finding appropriate moments to question our choices makes our choices better.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the need, at some point, to make conscious decisions about your intentions for a piece and what means you would use to carry those intentions out. A simpler word for that decision-making is design. I would choose an experience I wanted my reader to have and design the writing to achieve that experience.

The collaborative experience in journalism helped me see the equal necessity of reconsidering my design, of being willing to chuck it all and start from scratch if I found my design to be wrongheaded. I have always found this reconsideration both terrifying and liberating. It scares me because it means that hours, days, weeks or more of labor can end up junked. But it frees more than it frightens because however wrong I get it, I can always give myself the chance to recuperate my writing, so long as I’m willing to tell myself the truth about the work I’ve done.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Engaging Play

One of my first jobs on the college newspaper at Kansas—The University Daily Kansan—was copyediting. As students in Dr. John Bremner’s editing class, each of us had to do a set number of shifts during the semester. I had written before, all kinds of writing for years, since I elementary school; but I had never edited writing—either mine or anyone else’s—as meticulously as I learned to edit in that class and on that desk.

Don Munday served as copy desk chief. He was an advanced undergraduate in his early 20s, but looked ageless. While he sat in the slot of the U-shaped desk, we were arrayed around him on the outside edge, making our editing marks on sheets of newsprint onto which reporters had typed their stories. Don was droll and very smart, and he had on his desk, facing us, a small statue of the Big Boy, a pudgy figure in checkerboard overalls whose image adorned the JB’s Big Boy restaurants that operated in Kansas at the time, and to whom Don bore an uncanny resemblance.

Day slid into shadow during each shift, the next door newsroom’s typing and buzz growing quieter until it ended altogether as evening progressed. Mainly I remember the fun of bathing our hands in words. I’ve never particularly enjoyed crossword puzzles or Scrabble, but decades later I still miss the challenge of wedging music and sense into a difficult headline space.

We formatted each page of our newspaper six columns across, and when it was time to write a headline Don would give us the count—the amount of space we had to fit the headline into: between one and six columns wide, between one and three lines of text, and the size of the print (the larger the print size the fewer words that would fit per line). The smaller the print size and the more columns of width and lines of depth, the more words would fit into the headline and the easier it was to write. One column headlines were the most difficult.

Early on, I learned that to compose a good head I had to read the entire story, distill its essence in my mind, and begin to play with words. Brevity mattered, but so did sound and sense. What began with something like “University Registrar encourages students to sign up for classes early” had to be whittled down: “Registrar urges early registration.” I discovered the value of play without noticing it. I’d try one word then another, searching for synonyms, trying this verb then that, excising adjectives, collapsing nouns into smaller and smaller words. I started to hear the emotional tone beyond strict meaning that each word carries. We editors played with poems, really, composing our kind of haiku. We’d practice with puns, seeing how far we could go before it became too much, too stylized, to obscure.

A few years later, I copyedited in my first professional newspaper job, and experienced one of my most productive periods of creative writing. Knocking off work at midnight or 1 a.m., still energized, in my basement apartment I’d stand by a tall chest of drawers tapping on the typewriter placed atop it, my mind roiling with the language I had kneaded and massaged for the previous eight hours. In play I’d pry my mind open, breaking and remaking the rules it’s impossible to learn any other way. I came to trust the truth of language to push past the limits others have erected to fence out the innovative. I found that surprise resides in play. Language’s musical echoes get buried in everyday exchanges but uncover themselves in play’s silly sideways illumination, in the infrared or ultraviolet glow just outside the spectrum of normal light.

So I bend words, phrases, sentences, ideas into myriad effects, just to see what happens. Just to see how it sounds this way or that, to see where the emphasis falls when I slide the word left or right, when I slip in the punctuation that punches or for fun flip a different switch. So much of writing is necessarily purposeful and directed, but play is my source, tapping into the deep wells within language and within me from which my writing flows. I freewrite; I brainstorm; I make word clusters; I concept map. I don’t expect the product of this play to see daylight; that isn’t its function. But through it I ready myself for serious writing business.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: About Drafting

I would enter the doors of the newsroom greeted by the jangle or bleat of telephones, the click of typewriter (eventually computer) keys, the voices of reporters talking to sources on the phones or gossiping with one another or trading insults, the shouts of editors checking on the status of stories in progress. Through the noise, I would make my way to my desk, turn on my typewriter or log into my computer, place my notes in front of me, and begin drafting my story.

That moment invariably excited and terrified me the most because it involved the most mystery, even more than the unknown of gathering information. By the time I began to draft, I knew I had something. I also knew, though, that I would only discover its true outlines in these moments. A story I thought was great might crumble in the writing of it; a mediocre story might suddenly take on new life; I might find that I’d done too much reporting, or far too little. All of this the words and sentences would tell me as they emerged from the blank surface of the page or screen, when the draft takes it first physical form, moving from the conceptual to the concrete.

It may sound obvious that you can’t write well without actually, well, writing, but like many of my students, I have at times worked hard to avoid drafting. Sometimes I’ve outlined and planned ad nauseum; sometimes I’ve obsessively gathered information; sometimes for days, weeks, even months, I’ve gone over in my head what I thought a piece should look like and sound like and say; other times I’ve just daydreamed about who I’d like to cast for the film version of my novel, or I’d concoct imaginary interview responses for my imaginary book tour. Anything to keep from simply putting my rear in a chair and letting the words and sentences out.

Like so many students and would-be writers, I’ve sometimes thought of drafting as a chore to get through. But my writing works best when I treat drafting as its own event in the process of creating a text. It’s not the recording of ideas or the tedious playing out of a predetermined plan. Without sounding too mystical—oh what the hell, I’ll sound mystical—during drafting, language steps forward and asserts itself. Echoes and allusions and rhythms fall onto the page; some of them work and some don’t, but in what appears I get my first sense of what might be possible.

In the ruthlessness of its deadlines, newspaper writing forced me into that realization on a daily basis. I couldn’t avoid it; I couldn’t hide. And the exercise of turning language loose on subject after subject made me a more trusting, more confident, and better writer. Who needs a daily word count target when you have a city editor breathing down your neck at 5 o’clock every weekday evening?

In a telling scene in the film All the President’s Men, the late, great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by the late, great actor Jason Robards) reads through an early Watergate story as Woodward and Bernstein anxiously look on. To their dismay, he takes out a red pen and begins crossing out large chunks of their story’s main assertions. He responds to their objections by saying simply, “You haven’t got it. You haven’t got the story.” And though they are disappointed, they recognize that he is right. They aren’t yet ready to write the story they would like to write, to say what they think they want to say.

For me, that scene represents the hard truth of drafting and of what the draft tells me. The words and sentences on the page—not the concepts in my head—determine whether a piece of writing works, whether it creates the experience for the reader that I want it to create. The drafting is where I find the text.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Intention

When I taught college writing, I sometimes asked my students what they thought motivated writers to write. Journalists, the students generally agreed, wrote from a vague desire to “inform” a general audience. But every reporter worth a damn that I ever knew wanted more. We wanted to render compellingly what we saw and heard. We had mixed motives: ego and ambition, public service, a hope that we could goad readers into doing the right thing, or make them notice when the right thing wasn’t being done. We wanted people to read our stories, and we wanted what they read to matter.

Making my writing matter meant finding something I wanted to say in each story I covered. It meant determining what each story was going to be about, not in the sense of its subject matter, but in the sense of revealing what made that subject worth writing (and reading) about. It meant finding an “angle.”

During one summer internship, I was assigned the “Fourth of July” story. These are the kinds of stories that newspapers hire summer interns for. It saves editors having to compel a regular, fulltime reporter to work resentfully on a holiday writing the kind of story that newspapers feel obliged to run but that no one really wants to write and readers don’t necessarily want to read. Generally, nothing new or significant happens; Fourth of July is Fourth of July.

Grateful as I was for the internship, I didn’t want to do the story. It meant driving around to neighborhood picnics and barbecues and fireworks celebrations, conducting man (or woman) in the street interviews of ordinary people saying ordinary, less than scintillating things. But I had a story to write, column inches to fill, and a deadline to meet. I had no idea what to write about Independence Day, but that’s what the reporting was for. In short, I had enough parameters set for me to create a sense of urgency. The rest I had to come up with myself.

Eventually, my angle turned about to be the almost universal refrain among the people I interviewed—old and young, male and female, native born and immigrant—that Independence Day had less to do with remembering the source and history of our freedom and more to do with a holiday and fireworks shows.

Journalism taught me that writing without an intention is like shooting an arrow without any target. Somewhere in the process of producing a piece of writing—not necessarily at the beginning—I need to find a clear intention to give my work shape and cohesiveness.

The intention for a piece of writing can be discovered in a thousand ways: identifying the audience, creating a thesis, choosing a genre, constructing an outline, determining the vocabulary, deciding whether to write in first or second or third person, the length of the piece, its title, its subject, and a hundred other choices a writer eventually has to make. In much of the writing I’ve done, someone else (an editor, professor, publication, style guide) made some of these limiting decisions for me. But ultimately the writing didn’t work unless I created or discovered my own.

Some of my writing students demanded that I provide every intention. “What do you want?” they continually asked. In a thousand ways, I tried to say, “I want you to find, within the parameters of the assignment, something you really want to tell me. I want you to do your best to make me care about what you want to show me.” To most students, intention belonged to teachers, and they were handed out, never discovered by the writer. For a few students, intentions were irrelevant; only creativity mattered. And creativity meant releasing themselves on the page with no parameters, no rules, no need for any kind of coherence.

But setting the intention for a piece of writing is as necessary as putting words on the page, because it’s from that intention that the experience I want my reader to have comes to life. And it emerges from a dialogue between the constraints others impose on our writing and those we find for ourselves.